Tuesday, February 26, 2008

My writing has a strong Indian genesis.

My first newspaper article appeared in an Indian newspaper, the Amrita Bazar Patrika, in 1952, when I was in Calcutta and my first regular articles for a magazine were as London correspondent for Himmat which I represented at three Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings. My first book From India with Hope, was written at Asia Plateau, Panchgani, in 1971. My second book Experiment with Untruth – India Under Emergency was written secretly in India at that time and published by Macmillan India. These books were launched by India High Commissioners in London. So that I can say that my writing has a strong Indian genesis.

My life has like many Westerners also been deeply affected by India and Indians. And like many British I had numerous ancestors in the army in the subcontinent. Indeed, after the recent misguided or ill-prepared attempts by British descendants of the 1857 uprising period to remember the brave dead on both sides I should probably disclose that the portrait of my great, great grandfather in our front hall has him wearing what we call the Indian Mutiny Medal. One of the elements that struck me as I read Rajmohan Gandhi’s book Gandhi, the Man, His People and the Empire was the Mahatma’s firm repudiation of British attitudes and behaviour and yet his incredible generosity of spirit towards these occupiers of his country.

I was introduced to India in 1952 when I was part of that international team of 200 people who came to Ceylon, India and Pakistan in 1952 with Frank Buchman, the initiator of what was then Moral Re-Armament (MRA) and is now Initiatives of Change. The invitation to India was signed by eighteen distinguished personalities, among them Gulzarilal Nanda, Minister of Planning, and two members of the Planning Commission, Sir Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar, Vice Chancellor of Madras University, Khandubhai Desai, President of the Indian National Trade Union Congress, and J R D Tata, Chairman of Tata Industries. They outlined their expectations: ‘We are convinced that the true hope of bringing lasting change in social and economic conditions and for bringing peace to the world lies in multiplying such practical results as we believe to have been achieved by Moral Re-Armament – the giving of a new incentive to industry, the change of heart of capitalist and Communist alike, the replacing of mistrust, bitterness and hate between individuals and groups with understanding and co-operation.’

The 200 people ranged from teenagers to those in their seventies and included an international chorus and the casts of several straight and musical plays as well as many tons of stage equipment and literature. More than 200,000 people were to attend their performances and public meetings as we travelled eight thousand miles in the subcontinent. It was one of the most unusual ‘task forces’, to use the language of the immediate post-war world, that could have been assembled, with 25 nationalities, French and Germans, Japanese and former enemies, capitalists and former Communists, not to mention young Allied veterans including a number of British ex-members of the Indian Army and Navy. Some of them, particularly the casts and stage crew, had spent several years ‘on the road’ , impacting not only traditional audiences on Broadway and in Hollywood but also playing among the ruins of a German nation in the process of rebuilding its physical structure and helping lay its democratic foundations.

These stage productions not only illustrated some of the basic themes of the MRA philosophy such as ‘It is not who’s right but what’s right’ and ‘If you want to bring a change in the world then the place to start is in your own life’ and ‘God has a plan, you have a part’ but were also highly entertaining. Some of the songs like ‘If you point your finger at your neighbour, there are three more pointing back at you’, the philosophy of one of the Burmese members of the party, Daw Nyein Tha, stayed for decades in the memory of some of those who heard them.

My first days on that Asian trip were spent living at Colombo’s Young Men’s Buddhist Association where I helped build the ‘flats’ for the plays and my last in Karachi, at the time of our Queen’s coronation, where I said goodbye to the camel carts that took the scenery away. I celebrated my 21st birthday working backstage on two showings of the play The Forgotten Factor in the New Empire cinema in Calcutta.

My impressions range from the reception Indian President Rajendra Prasad gave us all in the grounds of his official residence, the Rashtrapati Bhavan, to our laying a wreath at Rajghat, the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi in Delhi, to working alongside the head of the cement workers of India who as we swept the stage in Bombay said to me, ‘This is the first time I have ever done any manual labour.’ I was present in Jaipur House when Prime Minister Nehru came for tea and also when Frank Buchman was decorated by the German government for his work of reconciliation between France and Germany. A year later I was to meet the Mahatma’s son, Manilal, in Durban where the work of Moral Re-Armament was described in his paper Indian Opinion as ‘a new dimension of racial unity’.

I was later also to travel in India with German miners and their play Hoffnung (Hope), with Japanese students and their play The Tiger, and with seventy mostly young Europeans with the musical Anything to Declare? who learnt lessons for life from their months in the country. On that trip I was impressed by what had happened since the earlier visit, the ‘march on wheels’ led by Rajmohan Gandhi, in which my aunt, my wife and her brother participated, and the outreach of Asia Plateau, and urged that a book should be written about it.

Finding no Indian takers and having a few weeks spare at Asia Plateau I wrote From India with Hope. As I put it in the foreword, ‘I write the stories of ordinary Indian men and women whom I have met and their experiments with truth in action.’ The book included the stories of the founding of Asia Plateau and of Himmat, of the student power that ended a deadlock that had shut down Standard Motors, of farmers finding reconciliation, of management developing a new attitude to workers, of Harijans talking to the president of India and of the creation of Meghalaya in 1970 where I heard the governor of Assam, B.K. Nehru, say, ‘Seldom have such far-reaching changes been brought about with so much goodwill and understanding.’

When I moved to the United States in the late seventies it was my book about the Emergency which gave me first the opportunity and then the courage to accept invitations to host television programmes and do regular radio commentaries and newspaper columns. The chance to met stalwarts in the Emergency from ‘JP’ to Soli Sorabjee gave me an education in the need to stand up when democracy is threatened while an experience of eating in a dining car at a railway station fifty-five years ago, as starving people watched through the windows imploring us to give them food, confirmed in me the decision to work for a fairer world for all. It was a decision that has led to a most exciting, unpredictable and satisfying life.

I salute India and foresee Asia Plateau having an even greater role in the years ahead than it has had up to now.

This article appeared in the Indian magazine Disha in a special issue in January 2008 celebrating 40 years of the Initiatives of Change conference centre at Asia Plateau.